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Ireland face striker dilemma

By | 6th October 2011

With just two matches left in the qualifying process for the 2012 European Championships, the Republic of Ireland remain in with a very real chance of getting to their first major tournament since the 2002 World Cup.

Thierry Henry and France’s controversial- and undeserved- win meant heartbreak for the Boys in Green in the 2010 World Cup play-offs.

But Giovanni Trapattoni’s side have come back stronger, and with a desire to right the wrongs of the previous campaign and leave no doubt as to whether fans should purchase their travel packages to Poland and Ukraine.

Currently, Ireland sit 2nd in the Group B table, with 15 points after 8 matches (W4 D3 L1), just 2 points behind leaders Russia. Even though Russia beat Ireland 3-2 in Dublin, the Irish were somehow able to hold on to a point in Moscow last month, thanks in large part to the heroics of Richard Dunne and Shay Given.

Slovakia and Armenia are tied for 3rd spot in 14 points each, and with the Slovaks taking on Russia, a victory for Marek Hamsik and co would give Ireland the chance to finish top of the group, and qualify automatically.

It could make all the difference, as Ireland still have the chance to top the group (with some help), and two wins in the final matches away against Andorra and home to Armenia guarantees at least a play-off spot, where a trip to Dublin will again be an unfancied destination. And while Andorra and Armenia may seem like easy opponents, the problem for Trap will be picking who will play up front.

Robbie Keane has been a stalwart for Ireland, whatever his occasional problems at club level, and even with a move to the LA Galaxy it seems the captain will continue to lead the line, at least in this campaign.

The well-travelled Dubliner has scored a stunning 51 goals for Ireland, more for his country than any other British or Irish player, and a trip to Euro 2012 ten years after his breakout performance in Korea and Japan would be a great way to cap a special career.

His preferred strike partner for the majority of the past few years has been Kevin Doyle. The Wexford native’s work-rate is second to none, and he has consistently put in shifts for Reading, Wolves, and his country, earning him interest from Juventus and Arsenal, among others.

Doyle has not scored as many goals as Keane for Ireland- only 9 in 43 caps- but his hold up play, aerial ability, and general hard work is valued. But Shane Long has taken the Premier League by storm this year since joining West Brom from Reading, and the 24 year old was set to start over Doyle against Slovakia and Russia in early September before injuries ruled him out.

His club form has been superb, and the thinking is that it may finally be his time to become a regular starter for his country.

Simon Cox has only been brought into the fold recently, and despite struggling to find regular playing time at West Brom, the English-born frontman has done well for Ireland, notching goals against Northern Ireland and Italy.

He  too works hard for the team, and has a good eye for a pass to set up his fellow striker. With Trap usually using at least one of his substitutions on a striker, his chance could well come.

Another interesting proposition is the partnership of Doyle and Long, who worked well together for the Royals a few years back. With Keane now in America, and Doyle and Long doing quite well in England’s top flight, the changing of the guard may well be complete after this qualifying campaign.

But Trapattoni has put faith in Keane regardless of his club situation since taking the job in 2008, and the possibility of Keane starting either of these matches on the bench remains low. 

Armenia, who Ireland beat 1-0 more than a year ago i n Yerevan, represent a test in the final match for both nations. Armenia have come back against all odds to put themselves within a whisker of a shock appearance in the play-offs, especially considering the manner in which they were written off before the qualifying phase began.

But if Ireland are to claim a place among Europe’s 16 best sides, goals will have to be scored. Who will be the next hero for the Emerald Isle?

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